Exploring the differential associations between components of executive functioning and reactive and proactive aggression

J Clin Exp Neuropsychol. 2018 Feb;40(1):62-74. doi: 10.1080/13803395.2017.1314450. Epub 2017 Apr 18.


Objective: A large body of literature confirms the importance of executive functioning (EF) in the explanation of aggressive and antisocial behaviors. However, the common and specific associations between subtypes of aggression, such as reactive (RA), proactive aggression (PA), and EF are unclear. The current study explored the nuanced associations between components of EF and subtypes of aggression, using a latent variable approach.

Method: Participants were 384 racially diverse undergraduate students (ages 18-52 years) who completed a self-report measure of RA and PA, and traditional neuropsychological tasks of EF. The appropriateness of using a nested bifactor model of EF was confirmed, and this bifactor model of EF was then used to examine the specific associations between components of EF and RA and PA.

Results: Results revealed that components of EF are differentially associated with RA and PA. Specifically, impulsive, provoked aggression (i.e., RA) was associated with lower levels of goal-oriented inhibition and higher levels of flexibility, whereas planned, goal-oriented aggression (i.e., PA) was associated with higher levels of working memory.

Conclusions: Findings from the current study underscore the importance of considering the multidimensional nature of EF, as well as the heterogeneity within aggression, rather than considering either construct as a single monolithic construct. The current study suggests that potentially unique brain-based pathways from aspects of EF to subtypes of aggression may exist, and points toward potential avenues through which to intervene.

Keywords: Aggression; executive functioning; proactive aggression; reactive aggression.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aggression / physiology*
  • Aggression / psychology
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder / physiopathology
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder / psychology
  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Executive Function / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Impulsive Behavior / physiology
  • Inhibition, Psychological
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology
  • Middle Aged
  • Models, Psychological
  • Motivation / physiology*
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Self Report
  • Young Adult